“The streets were dark with something more than night.” – Raymond Chandler
In a quick little genderized addendum to Chandler’s dictum, may we assume that down these mean streets a woman, too, must go who is not herself mean? And just as importantly — for getting the job done — one who is also intuitive and sly?
Among the many pulp stories of Whitman Chambers (1898-1968) — a now overlooked author of more than 20 crime and mystery novels, as well as a notable screenwriter for such films as The Come-On (1953), and Manhandled (1949) — “The Duchess Pulls a Fast One” is one of several written for Detective Fiction Weekly that features Katie “the Duchess” Blaine, a reporter for The Sun who uses an innate sense of smarts to investigate crimes while researching her articles. Indeed, the independent Duchess — the creation of whom was Chambers’ best effort in the production of an appealing series character — could “produce hunches faster than a cigarette machine turns out coffin nails.”
Not that she’s letting on early in this September 19, 1936 DFW story when she and a couple of rival big-boy reporters, Spike and Pinky, respond to a suspicious chemical plant fire – in fact, she comes off as an in-the-way tag-along, and even resourcefully jumps on a pumper as it hits the road “with bell clanging and siren wailing.” But once she gets her transportation, she goes on her own journalistic way, no matter what the quick consensus may be.
A consensus that, as know-it-all Spike and Pinky later and condescendingly explain, sees the fire as an arson-set insurance hoax known as a "Schwartz" — “Duchess, don’t you know a Schwartz when one jumps up and spits in your face?” — one implicating the chemical company’s owner, Kurt Bergstrom, another employee, John Hamlin, and his wife. The Duchess is perfectly willing to listen patiently, but when their particular nonsense jumps up and spits in her face, she is just as ready to indicate as such:
- “And who was the man they found in the laboratory?”
“Some hobo who’ll never be missed. Hamlin got him there on the pretext of giving him a job, slapped him over the conk and fired the joint. Simple, Duchess.
“And you think Kurt Bergstrom was in on the hoax?” Katie pursued.
“Cinch.” Spike nodded gleefully. “The way I dope it, the time of the fire was prearranged to put Bergstrom in the clear. John Hamlin is a weak sister and the whole plot was cooked up by Bergstrom and Mrs. Hamlin. Hamlin is safely holed up somewhere, and when the heat is off he and the dame’ll scram to South America with forty grand.”
“And the other forty grand?”
“Into Kurt Bergstrom’s sock. Well, what do you think of it, Duchess?”
“I think the whole thing,” Katie promptly retorted, “is the silly machination of a disordered brain.”
While we follow the convoluted “thrill of the chase” for the boys as it breaks down in the face of increasing chaos, it is not until the end of “The Duchess Pulls a Fast One” that we are let in on the true extent of her “pay off.” After the behind-the-scenes build-up throughout the bulk of the story, we are led to the orchestrated, clashing, contradicting, and correct conclusion in which — with a twist here, a turn there, and a surprise ending from out of nowhere — all characters are brought together, the scenarios played out, and every loose end is tied up in a bow.
And if we ever doubted before, we suddenly stand united with each principal wondering “where we ever got the idea that the Duchess was silly, and dumb, and slow on the pick-up.”